It’s not easy having to watch Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel itself – which I’m still trying to convince myself is an experiment in mindless vulgarity like Naked Came the Stranger was in its day – is the kind of work of art that has fooled millions of people into believing an abusive relationship is exactly what they want. With its adaptation to film, we’re left with a less embarrassing product, but one that isn’t self-aware enough, or even remotely entertaining enough, to allow anyone who hasn’t been sucked in by the novel to overlook just how bland and dangerous it really is. As Grey himself says, this film is “Fifty Shades of Fucked Up.”
From the get-go, we’re presented with a total Mary Sue of a character; every single thing about Anastasia comes straight out of Fan Fiction 101. She bites her lip constantly (because sexy!), she’s got bangs (which means she’s quirky!), she’s not considered conventionally attractive (because cardigan!), she’s surrounded by attractive men on every side (who like her!), and she’s a virgin. Yes. I know. Because she’s a virgin, an inexperienced flower of a woman, she’s easily susceptible to Christian Grey’s “charm”. By charm, I mean he stalks her, buys her expensive items to replace things in her life that he doesn’t like, manipulates her into a submissive role in which he can dish out physical abuse without her genuine consent, and harasses her about signing a contract that will allow him to do whatever he wants to her and take away any semblance of agency she once had (though she’s free to walk away at any time she wants).
Pretend for a moment we were willing to overlook all of these things, as many before me have spoken about Christian and Anastasia’s relationship and I feel no need to further explain my discomfort with it. Fifty Shades of Grey still doesn’t manage to be anywhere near the titillating movie that its trashy novel promises it could be. One almost wonders if the film would have achieved the same gleeful atmosphere that The Boy Next Door managed had author E.L. James had her way with the film. Alas, the film takes itself far too seriously for its, and the audience’s, own good. As great a cinematographer as Seamus McGarvey is, the glossy but sterilized world he and director Sam Taylor-Johnson create together could accompany Mary Harron’s American Psycho in the most unsettling way. The caged bird imagery littered throughout hints at an imbalanced relationship, but it’s never explored further, as any realization that this may not be a stable relationship is shoved aside as quickly as the information that Christian Grey was sexually abused between the ages of 15 and 21 by a friend of his mother.
But it’s the performances and the presentation of sex scenes that closes the mausoleum door for Fifty Shades of Grey and any hopes of being erotic it had. The first problem is that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have next to no chemistry, to the point where they’re often not even in the same shot as each other, and when they are, there’s no tension to the way they look at each other. His touches come across as someone who is looking at some precious vase, so afraid to touch it that it might break apart. While she tries desperately hard to fit this mousy persona she’s forced into (her drunken stupor comes across more like a twelve year-old pretending to be drunk), her performance eventually settles into a comfortable enough situation by the last act. His, however, can never escape the true nature of Christian Grey: the fact that he’s more akin to Patrick Bateman than he is any charming prince (and his true accent threatening to slip through constantly doesn’t help either).
Their utter lack of chemistry makes the tepid sex scenes all the worse. The Beyoncé songs flood the scene, but it doesn’t lend them any atmosphere or make them come across as any less uncomfortable than they already are. To think that people would actually hail any portion of this film as sex-positive is baffling, considering the lack of agency and overwhelming emotional manipulation that goes on. Even the little bits of BDSM actually presented (spanking, belts, tying up) comes across as tame and softcore, arguably appealing more to straight male audiences than the intended straight female audience. The female nudity is gratuitous as ever, with more nipple close-ups and shots of Johnson’s breasts than anything else, leaving everyone to wonder why the woman is the one stripped down and left in a vulnerable position here. It doesn’t come across as exploitative, but it’s just about as confusing as the fact that her character still has a flip-phone.
For all the trashy sex-heavy goodness that a film like Fifty Shades of Grey should have promised, it’s a shame to receive something so ashamed to be what it is. It’s pretty, empty, and, worst of all, damaging, but it’s what no film of this caliber should ever be: boring. When your most exciting scene is a sit-down between two characters – each at the end of a long table – in which they discuss the terms of a contract, there’s a problem. Christian Grey may boast that Anastasia is committed to understanding their contract, but immediately after he praises her for knowledge and preparation, she asks what a butt plug is. And that’s exactly what you get with Fifty Shades of Grey: a film that has no clue what it wants to be based on a book that has no clue what it’s depicting.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson; written by Kelly Marcel; adapted from the novel by E.L. James; starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk, and Eloise Mumford; 125 minutes.
Fifty Shades of Grey is currently in theaters everywhere.